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Plato and the Talmud


  • Page extent: 294 pages
  • Size: 228 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.52 kg

Library of Congress

  • Dewey number: 184
  • Dewey version: 22
  • LC Classification: B395 .H8525 2011
  • LC Subject headings:
    • Plato
    • Talmud

Library of Congress Record


 (ISBN-13: 9780521193139)

Plato and the Talmud
Cambridge University Press
9780521193139 - Plato and the Talmud - By Jacob Howland

Plato and the Talmud

This innovative study sees the relationship between Athens and Jerusalem through the lens of the Platonic dialogues and the Talmud. Jacob Howland argues that these texts are animated by comparable conceptions of the proper roles of inquiry and reasoned debate in religious life, and by a profound awareness of the limits of our understanding of things divine. Insightful readings of Plato’s Apology, Euthyphro, and Chapter 3 of tractate Ta’anit explore the relationship of prophets and philosophers, fathers and sons, and gods and men (among other themes), bringing to light the tension between rational inquiry and faith that is essential to the speeches and deeds of both Socrates and the Talmudic sages. In reflecting on the pedagogy of these texts, Howland shows in detail how Talmudic aggadah and Platonic drama and narrative speak to different sorts of readers in seeking mimetically to convey the living ethos of rabbinic Judaism and Socratic philosophizing.

Jacob Howland is McFarlin Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tulsa. He is the author of Kierkegaard and Socrates: A Study in Philosophy and Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2006), The Paradox of Political Philosophy: Socrates’ Philosophic Trial (1998), and The Republic: The Odyssey of Philosophy (1993). He also edited A Long Way Home: The Story of a Jewish Youth, 1939–1949, by Bob Golan (2005), and has published numerous articles.

Plato and the Talmud

Jacob Howland

University of Tulsa

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Cambridge University Press
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Information on this title:
© Jacob Howland 2011

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2011
Printed in the United States of America

A catalog record for this publication is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication data

Howland, Jacob.
Plato and the Talmud / Jacob Howland.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
isbn 978-0-521-19313-9
1. Plato. 2. Talmud. I. Title.
b395.h8525 2011
184–dc22 2010030597

ISBN 978-0-521-19313-9 Hardback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party Internet Web sites referred to in this publication and does not guarantee that any content on such Web sites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.

For Irv and Sharna Frank, of blessed memory


Introduction:Athens and Jerusalem
The Nature of the Inquiry
1       Talmudic and Platonic Writing
Scripture, Midrash and Mishnah Forms, and Oral Torah
The Mishnah and the Gemara
Halakha, Aggadah, and Talmudic Pedagogy
Interpretative Imagination: Talmudic and Platonic Storytelling
Philosophy in Action: The Case for Socrates
Philosophy and Tradition: Plato’s Complex Pedagogy
The Ambition of the Texts
2       Rabbis and Holy Men
The Context and the Mishnah of Ta’anit 3
Ḥoni in the Gemara: Self-Knowledge, Heroism, and Community
Salvation and Exile
3       Prophets and Philosophers
Socrates’ Strangeness
Socrates’ Faith
Socrates as Exemplar
Socrates as Prophet
Emulating Socrates: Philosophical Pedagogy and Judaism
4       Fathers and Sons
Socratic Paternalism and the Promise of Community
Euthyphro, Socrates, and the Fathers of Athens
Meletus, Son of the City
Beginning from the Beginning: The Erotic and Prophetic Philosopher
Meletus and Euthyphro: Archaic Aspirations
Back to the Beginning: Socrates
5       Words and Deeds
Elazar and the Ugly Man
Models of Merit: The Sages in Action
Another Ugly Man: Naḥum of Gam Zu
6       Gods and Men
Piety in Action: Definition and the Dramatic Paradigm
The Mantle of Piety: Euthyphro’s Divine Revenge
Exposing Euthyphro: Socrates’ Philanthropic and Philotheistic Therapy
Philosophy as Piety: A New Beginning
The Grammar of Socratic Religious Invention
7       Miracles and Necessity
Praying for Miracles: The Ambivalence of the Rabbis
The Moral Economy of Miracles
Mercy and Humility
Epilogue:Texts and Traditions
Works Cited
Index to Biblical and Rabbinic Texts
General Index


I owe a great debt to Rabbi Marc Boone Fitzerman of Congregation B’nai Emunah in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who introduced me to the Talmud. For more than a decade, Rabbi Fitzerman has graciously presided over a weekly Talmud study group in which I have been privileged to participate. It was by reading the Talmud that I became familiar with the paths of thought and action opened up by rabbinic Judaism, and so began to grasp the true fullness of Jewish intellectual and spiritual life. I am also thankful for the lasting friendships I have formed with my past and present study partners, including Jim Bednar, Morris Bernstein, Harvey Blumenthal, Curtis Green, Jan Jankowsky, Vernon Mudd, Howard Raskin, Coleman Robison, Fred Strauss, Brian Watt, Stephen Zeligson, and – of blessed memory – Irvin Frank, Nathan Loshak, Morris Mizel, Allen Zeff, and Robert Zeligson.

During a visit to Tulsa some years ago, Jacob Neusner encouraged me to write a book about the similarities between the Platonic dialogues and the Talmud. Later, Irving Greenberg did the same. I thank these men, both leaders in the world of Jewish thought, for motivating me to pursue this project. Rabbi Greenberg also helped me to obtain financial support for my work. I am grateful to the Littauer Foundation, the Earhart Foundation, Irvin Frank, and the University of Tulsa for making possible a yearlong sabbatic leave in 2008–09, during which this book was written.

In 2009, Yoram Hazony, provost of the Shalem Center, kindly invited me to speak on Plato and the Talmud. My visit to Jerusalem proved to be enormously fruitful. I am indebted to the seminar participants, and in particular to Yoram, Ran Baratz, Meirav Jones, Yosef Yitzḥak Lifshitz, Moshe Shoshan, Joshua Weinstein, and Michael Widlanski, for their many helpful criticisms and comments. Rabbi Lifshitz and Ronna Burger of Tulane University generously read and critiqued the manuscript; I am deeply grateful to both for the thoughtfulness and erudition they brought to this task.

Abraham Howland, with whom it is a special pleasure for me to discuss philosophy, read an early version of the first chapters of this book and made several helpful suggestions. As always, my wife, Jennifer Hayes Howland, made our home a wonderful place to read, think, and write. Beatrice Rehl, my editor at Cambridge University Press, saw the promise of this project early on, and supervised the acquisition and publication of this book with characteristic professionalism and efficiency. I thank my friends and colleagues Russ Hittinger, Jane Ackerman, Stephen Gardner, Michael Futch, and Matthew Drever for their scholarly assistance and intellectual companionship. I am indebted to another friend, Paul Rahe of Hillsdale College, for connecting me with the Shalem Center. I am grateful to Anne-Marie Bowery of Baylor University and David Roochnik of Boston University for inviting me to speak to their colleagues and students about Plato and the Talmud. I also wish to acknowledge the steady support of Tom Benediktson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tulsa, and of the Chapman Trusts, which finance my research and teaching as McFarlin Professor of Philosophy.

There are certain debts that no words can repay. As I was preparing these acknowledgments, news came of the death of Paul L. Brown, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tulsa. Paul gave me an academic job at a time when I despaired of getting one, and never ceased to mentor me. He had many friends; paradoxically, our knowledge of the extraordinary fullness and goodness of his life both softens and deepens the pain we feel in his absence.

Finally, I am eternally grateful for the friendship and generosity of Irv and Sharna Frank. The Franks’ home was a kind of salon – a place of fellowship and good conversation, where one could feel the pulse of Tulsa and sense the peculiar excitement and entrepreneurial energy of Jewish life in Oklahoma. The Franks exemplified philanthropic optimism and humility; they neglected no opportunity to help mend the world. This book is dedicated to their memory.

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