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The Open PastSubjectivity and Remembering in the Talmud$

Sergey Dolgopolski

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780823244928

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823244928.001.0001

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Ego Cogito, Ego Meminí: I Think, Therefore I Remember

Ego Cogito, Ego Meminí: I Think, Therefore I Remember

(p.34) Two Ego Cogito, Ego Meminí: I Think, Therefore I Remember
The Open Past

Sergey Dolgopolski

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The chapter articulates the difference in the understanding of the role of memory in thiniking in modern ways of thinking, and in the way of thinking displayed in the late ancient texts of the Talmud. The chapter gives voice to otherwise tacit Cartesian foundations of modern Talmud scholars in their thinking about thinking in the Talmud.

Keywords:   Cartesianism in modern Talmud scholarship, Redactors of the Talmud, theory of, Cogito, Performativity theory in the Talmud, Talmud Criticism

How does modern thinking about thinking differ from historically known methods of thinking, particularly within the Jewish tradition? Late ancient rabbinic schools of thought differ from modern intellectual habits in their understanding of the role of memory in thinking. Modern practices of thinking limit the role of memory to providing data. In contrast, the rabbis viewed thinking as an essential instrument of memory. This contrast in the relationship between thinking and memory allows rabbinic—specifically Talmudic—practices of thinking to provide valuable insight into the complexity of human thinking in the modern age.

Through a critical assessment of the process of thinking inherent in the the Talmud, the following chapters contribute to the fields of Jewish studies and philosophy. In addition to offering new insights into the Talmud by analyzing it in terms of the philosophical theory of subjectivity and memory, which (p.35) has not yet been used to address the texts of the Talmud, they more broadly allow scholars to assess the utility of the philosophical theory of subjectivity beyond the realm of either philosophy or its usual application to the contemporary understandings of human thinking.

However, the question of the nature of thinking and remembering in the Talmud arises not only from the context of philosophical and rhetorical exploration of thinking and remembering but also from the context of academic scholarship on the Talmud in the last two centuries. In that context, the question of thinking and remembering in the Talmud comes to light subtly and implicitly, rather than openly and explicitly. And yet, there, the emphasis in this question remains on thinking, as opposed to remembering, and in particular on the question of who allegedly thinks in the Talmud—whose thinking is expressed in it?

I do not author this question. Rather, it arose because Talmudic scholars of the twentieth century asked the question “Who redacted the Talmud?” Redaction theory emphasizes the historical, chronological production of a text, rather than the intellectual practices that the text demonstrates. According to these scholars, the teachings of the earlier masters, or amor'aim, underwent successive revisions by anonymous redactors, resulting in a text that became the Talmud. However, a crucial gap remains open between the question these scholars asked and the question they answered. Their question focused on the process of redaction, but their answer posited a thinking agency that they personified as the anonymous redactors in the Talmud. These scholars tried to learn who redacted or rather reinvented the teachings of the earlier masters or amor'aim, but by positing a thinking subject in the process of redaction, they revealed the actual question underlying their inquiry, that is, “Who thinks in the Talmud?”

My project here interrogates precisely what is left out when thinking is thus uncritically attributed to an agent. The concept of a redactor implies a finished process that ended with the publication of the work. Liberating the process of thinking from the conception of a thinking and writing agent allows us to reopen the Talmud as an archive that is both the protocol for and the actual record of live thinking that invites ongoing engagement, but that was artificially interrupted by extrinsic forces of history.

The existence of these anonymous redactors as thinking and designing subjects was theoretically conceived in the process of analyzing the texts of the Talmud and empirically verified exclusively by the same texts. The scholars (p.36) of text-critical approaches of Talmud criticism have neither initially reconstructed nor consequently succeeded in supporting the existence of these rationally thinking subjects by any external historical evidence outside the Talmud. Needless to say, their identification of the activity of redactors or designers has depended on how these scholars have understood the intellectual norms of the Talmud's composition and consequently on how they have interpreted the literary and intellectual design of the Talmud. In turn, their understanding of the intellectual norms of the Talmud was informed by the traditions of Talmudic interpretation in the Middle Ages as well as in early modernity. These post-Talmudic traditions of interpretation (paradigmatic examples include Maimonides in the twelfth century, Canpanton in the fifteenth century, and Lutsatto in the eighteenth century) either highlighted or downplayed (but never doubted) the role of refutations and counterrefutations or defenses as the core form of legalistic discussion in the text of the Talmud.

To take one prominent example of the result of focusing on Talmudic refutations and defenses as the main form of the Talmud, both traditional interpreters and contemporary text-critical scholars invariably have rigidly separated the legalistic and homiletic parts of Talmudic text. They called these parts by the terms borrowed from the Talmud, halakhah and haggadah, respectively. They have both broadened these two terms in meaning and privileged the former over the latter. However, an option that both the traditional interpretive and text-critical approaches excluded was to relate refutations in the Talmud to a larger intellectual paradigm—that of memory as the main thinking activity performed in the Talmudic text. In what follows, I discern and explore that option and examine the text of (the) Talmud as a literary and intellectual form of memory.

To that end, I propose to reconnect the scholarly interest in thinking that is implicit in contemporary text-critical analyses of the Talmud and explicit in studies of both the philosophy and rhetoric of thinking processes.

That is, I propose to show how the question “Who thinks in the Talmud?” needs to be rephrased as “Who remembers in the Talmud?” or even more precisely, “Who performs Talmud as an intellectual discipline in the text of the late ancient Talmud?”

Advancing this inquiry presents four interconnected demands: direct analysis of the process of thinking in the Talmud; differentiating between the Talmud as a text and Talmud as an intellectual discipline; historicizing Talmud, that is, that intellectual discipline; and mapping Talmud's relationship (p.37) to other disciplines of thinking, both philosophical and rhetorical.1 Answering these demands will form the woof and warp of the arguments out of which the texture of the book that follows will be woven.

Contemporary text-critical understandings of Talmudic discussions have resources that can contribute to meeting these four demands. In particular, text-critical discussions dating the text of the Talmud illuminate the nature of the intelligent design of the text. The text-critical scholars addressed the question of the dating of the text as the question of identifying the speakers in and/or contributors to the text. To answer the question “Who speaks in the Talmud?” the text-critical scholars tried to determine whether it was the late ancient Talmudic masters, as it had seemed to traditional readers, or historically later anonymous redactors of these masters’ teachings, as critical analysis of the texts seemed to suggest. Another way in which these scholars approached the question of speakers in the Talmud, was by asking whether the conversations in the Talmud are the direct records of live discussions in rabbinic academies in late antiquity, as they had traditionally been assumed to be, or carefully and beautifully constructed literary designs made at a later time, as critical analysis suggested.

The text-critical problem of the chronological dating of the text not only posed difficult questions for scholars to solve, but it also highlighted the nature of the text of the Talmud. The Talmud indeed presents—and, as I will show, performs—the conversation of rabbis staged in an academy in late antiquity, yet that presentation, unlike, say, a classic novel, bears neither what might be called the date stamp of its creation nor the signature of composers, and it does not start with any explicit indication of the time, place, or characters involved. Still, like some modern literary forms of the novel, instead of describing actions for the reader from the point of view of a narrator, this text directly performs these actions—attacks, defenses, inferences, and so on—right in front of its readers or even involves these readers in that performance by putting them in the footsteps left by the arguments (and identities) of the characters.

An analogy between the texts of the Talmud and the sample performative utterance “I will always love you” can highlight the performative nature of the text of the Talmud. As John Austin's theory of performative actions suggests, in saying “I will always love you,” the action coincides with the expression of that action, which makes it a performative utterance, relating, as it does, to “loving now” and to “loving in the future” at the same time.

(p.38) Expressing it is the only way of doing it. By the same token, repeating it is the only way of verifying it is true.2 Properly, if the action is not expressed as the promise of love, it is not a promise of love. What is more, when a person says to another “I will always love you,” the details of the context, of time, place, or scenery, may vary, but the performative action as simultaneously the action and the expression of that action remains the same. In that sense, as indispensable as they are, the details of “scenery” or actual context still have only peripheral importance and thereby ultimately remain extrinsic. In short, the details change, but the expression of love as the promise remains. “I will always love you” is simultaneously an expression and a performative assertion of what is thereby expressed. Its truth or falsity, “the reality check,” can be verified only by repeating that performed utterance or falsified by not repeating it. Where and when it is performed doesn't matter.

The text of the Talmud can also be seen as a performative utterance, as long, complex, and multifaceted as it is. The action it expresses (make it refer not to “love,” but to “Talmud”)3 and the expression of that action coincide. The action of “Talmud” too is performed only by the performative promise to remember, which is achieved through following—that is, repeating—the protocols of memory in the text of the Talmud.

In understanding the nature of the text of the Talmud, a second analogy with the performative utterance “I will always love you” can help. If presented as direct speech, the utterance “I will always love you” may or may not require the explicit presence of either a narrator or even the voice of the narrator. The latter can remain totally mute. Not only does a performer perform the performance, but the performance performs the performer. Therefore, if a narrator is needed to introduce the performer of an action, but if the performer is always already given in the performance, the text may have what could be called a zero degree of narration and be only direct speech, although in this speech, the speakers may of course serve as narrators if they quote or otherwise deliver speeches they attribute to others.

In fact, to make the phrase “I will always love you” work, it is unnecessary and perhaps even excessive to introduce the point of view of a narrator, who might say, for example, “Tom said to Becky, ‘I will always love you.’ ” The utterance sufficiently defines the performer as a lover. And again, verification would depend only on the reiteration of the performative utterance. Therefore, a narrator does not need to say, “And Tom meant to keep this promise.” In sum, the positioning of the performer as a lover who promises (p.39) love does not necessarily require any further help from a narrator, not even an introduction, much less a confirmation of what is uttered.

Furthermore, the uttered phrase automatically tells that besides the performer, there is some context: someone else to respond, or perhaps to deny, or perhaps even simply to hear. In short, when uttered, the phrase automatically defines the lover, even before and regardless of his or her name. What is more, that phrase already implies a place, a context, or even a language, without either defining them in any specific way or depending on such a definition. “I will always love you” is thus a performatively self-sufficient and self-referential utterance.

By way of that second analogy, the text of the Talmud can also be approached as a performative utterance in the mode of a direct speech that always implies a “now” and a context in which the speakers perform and are performed. Of course, the Talmud as direct speech is much longer and much more multifaceted in terms of the performers and implied contexts.

What is uttered and performed in it is obviously not love, at least not love par excellence, but rather the intellectual life of a rabbinic academy “in Babylon” and “in late antiquity.” Just as in “I will always love you,” the context is implied, but the details remain extrinsic, so also “Babylon” and “late antiquity” are external elements of the context for doing “Talmud” as performed in the text of the Talmud. Of course, these external elements could and should be inferred and “reconstructed” by an attentive reader.4 Yet however correctly they are inferred by modern readers and researchers, these literary circumstances remain of such extrinsic importance to the main performative act of the text of the Talmud that in the text they do not deserve direct introduction but get only indirect mentions or else appear as a part of direct speeches.

What ultimately matters in the Talmud is not the implied, yet not described, scenery and characters, but the performative act, the doing of what is done in the rabbinic academy. But what exactly is that doing in the Talmud? If I had to give a brief answer to that question, I would say, as I suggested above, that the doing of the academy is remembering the teachings of the sages of the Mishnah,5 a third-century code of instructions for rabbinical courts. And if I indeed ventured to give such a simple, if not simplistic answer, this chapter would be a long (and therefore unnecessary) version of that simple answer.

However, my concern about any answer in such a simple form has to do with the profound complexity of the notion of memory in terms of who (p.40) remembers, or rather what it means to remember. The complexity of that question defies any brief, much less any simple, answer. And at this point, the hitherto useful analogy with the performative utterance “I will always love you” helps no longer, because simply uttering “I (will) remember” does not quite perform anything: The object of love, the “you,” is already given or performed in the utterance “I will always love you,” but in “I (will) remember,” the objects of memory are not yet performed and are yet to be performed to make “I remember” a performative utterance.

An even greater complication is that, as I have already mentioned in the Introduction and as I will be arguing in more detail in the following chapters, in the Talmud, in contrast to the rhetorical practices of memory in the art of mnemonics, the protocols involved in memory also involve another faculty—that of analytical thinking—and in contrast to philosophical theories of analytical thinking as a vehicle of memory, Talmud performatively connects memory with the rhetorical technique of heuristic refutation and defense.

Finally, even more complexity emerges from the fact that understanding memory in the Talmud involves the question of personal being as such, of a performed existence, and, more precisely here, of a being that is performed as a person in the Talmud: the remembering being who is performed in the Talmud. Brief mention of the terms “memory” or “remembering” or even “thinking” cannot address the question of the nature and status of that personal being, because asking the question “Who speaks?” or “thinks,” or “remembers” seems automatically to assume that the answer must involve the thinking subject or cogito of modern philosophy—precisely the assumption I wish to interrogate here. Grammatically, the pronoun “who,” in the subject position of a sentence, instantiates the proposition I wish to bracket and question in terms of the subject position in general. Therefore, without jumping ahead of myself, I can say only that what follows throughout this book will pay close attention to the performer(s) who are performed both in and by the performative utterances that make for the text of Talmud, and make the Talmud not only a closed set of texts, but also an open archive. A more complicated, but more accurate way of putting the question that I wish to ask here, therefore, would have to be something like “What sort of way of being in the world is involved in performing that long utterance for which ‘the Talmud’ is a retroactively given name?” That is, what way of being in the world is involved in thinking and remembering in both the closed text (p.41) and the open archive called the Talmud? It is fundamentally that question that I ask when I ask, “What does it mean to remember?”: What way of being in the world is involved in performing the intellectual discipline that is Talmud? How, in other words, are “remembering” and “being” related?

To answer this question, I begin by employing the resources of contemporary Talmud criticism and, based on what Talmudic criticism has both succeeded and failed to achieve, proceed from what is clearer to what is more obscure about a remembering being, or, in the final analysis, the performance of remembering, in the Talmud. I initially highlight how that remembering being was first discovered (and occluded) as a thinking being in the Talmud by contemporary text-critical Talmud scholars as they constructed the Talmud as an object of scholarship by following in the footsteps of their early modern and medieval predecessors. In the light of, and, most importantly, in the darkness revealed by both the discovery and occlusion of who thinks in the Talmud, I will examine the complex relationship between memory and thinking as performed in that late ancient text.

This task is intrinsically comparative and hermeneutical in nature. It requires placing the Talmud as the performance of memory as thinking and of thinking as memory in a broader context and on a larger map—both synchronic and diachronic—of other intellectual disciplines, such as rhetoric and philosophy, including, in particular, the role of refutation and invention in each, including different versions of what it means to think and remember in the Greek, Latin, Syriac, and other schools and practices, both in late antiquity and in later texts that help illuminate earlier ones, either directly or by way of heuristic interpretations that I will consequently put into question by applying them to reading the Talmudic texts. Approached as a performance of intellectual activity, the late ancient Talmud reemerges as a protocol of thinking and remembering and thereby shows what exactly is involved in thinking, remembering, and existing—simultaneously in the literary, historical, and ontological senses of the terms—as a performed thinking and remembering being in the Talmud.

A first, hypothetical approximation of a comparative hermeneutical framework in which to ask the question of thinking, remembering, and personal existence in the Talmud, a simplistic and heuristic first approximation of the comparative framework to be adjusted and renegotiated as the inquiry goes on, can begin with the difference between cogito, ergo sum in modernity and meminí, ergo sum in antiquity: “I think, therefore I am” versus “I remember, (p.42) therefore I am.” In modern times, in Descartes's principle of cogito, ergo sum, existing as a person requires, first and foremost, thinking, or cognition in general. In contrast, in the Talmud, it requires remembering.

The difference between these two constitutive principles of individual existence does not form a linear opposition. Rather, their relationship escapes direct comparison. Instead, a more fine-tuned picture of the relationship between thinking and remembering must be drawn. For Descartes, cogito does not exclude remembering, yet remembering is only an extrinsic part of personal existence. Remembering is comparable to other accidental activities, such as eating, walking, or reading a text. In order to exist, Descartes requires only that we think (cogitare), which, again, may, but does not have to include remembering. (Perhaps this is why some interpreters and critics of Descartes have suggested reading his cogito ergo sum as cogitat ergo est [“It (he, she) thinks, therefore it exists”],6 for, not unlike a computer or, to take an older example of the “it,” the “intellect” in the Neoplatonic theory of Amelius, a thinking “it” does not have to remember itself.) In contrast, in the Talmud, an individual—call it a rabbi, a student, or talmid ḥakham, “one who learns from the wise”—exists first of all as one who remembers the traditions and teachings of the sages of the past (whether this past has either existed or is claimed to have been). His or her remembering may include and in many cases even requires the critical analysis of the data of memory, but thinking remains an added feature, and remembering stands at the core of what it takes to exist as a talmid ḥakham. This gives a better approximation, but it is not nuanced or complicated enough, either. The following chapters build, step by step, a theoretical framework discerning the thinking and remembering performed in the Talmud. I structure the argument there around three focal points of the performative utterance that is the Talmud: speaking, thinking, and remembering. Although each of the main parts of what follows emphasizes one of these foci, each also deals with its relationships with the other two. What follows thus comprises three parts. The part on “speaking” puts at the center of analysis the question of who speaks in the Talmud. I address this question by highlighting both the achievement and the limitations of Talmud criticism's conceptions of speaking beings in the Talmud as anonymous speakers (“redactors”) either of the text as a whole, or of the dicta of earlier, named teachers. The next part, on “thinking,” helps establish a theoretical framework in which to ask about the role of thinking in the activity of the anonymous speaking subjects whom the text-critical (p.43) scholars have identified in the Talmud. This theoretical framework provides what is necessary (but not what is sufficient) for asking about thinking in the Talmud directly and explicitly without occluding it by the notion of anonymous speaking subjects. The last part, on “remembering,” both employs and adjusts that framework of analysis in order to get even closer to the elusive target of my inquiry, the question of what sort of way of being in the world is involved in remembering in the Talmud. In focusing on remembering, I emphasize the role of refutation and invention in its relationship to memory and thinking in the Talmud in juxtaposition with the rhetorical and philosophical compartmentalization of remembering and refuting. This structure forms the larger tridimensional system of coordinates that defines the territory I now explore and map.