The Talmud's Theological Language-Game: A Philosophical by Eugene B. Borowitz

By Eugene B. Borowitz

Analyzes the constitution and good judgment of aggadic discourse within the Talmud.

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Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah record slightly different versions of the master’s rule that the verb form vayehi, “and it came to pass,” connotes trouble, while the same verb in the form vehayah, “and it happened,” connotes joy. This assertion unleashes a cascade of objections that allow the aggadist to teach the proper interpretation of many other Bible texts. This structure is rhetorically grounded, since aggadic discourse is broadly hospitable to diverse opinion, as demonstrated by R. Yo±anan’s contrary view that introduces this passage.

Na±man) as aggadah, but those texts do not so label themselves; we judge them to be aggadic. The specificity of these four tales about R. Samuel b. Na±man may tempt us to generalize from them and insist that they constitute a template for all aggadic discourse, but we must soberly consider them only a limited, if excellent, example of aggadah. However, limited as this data is, it provides us with valuable guidance for moving on to study our many other texts in considerable depth. Thus, the questions posed to the aggadic master all concern meaning rather than action.

Verbal connections predominate. Thus, a reference to the uncircumcised elicits an opprobrious comment on that state; the alleged identity of “false” and “vain” oaths produces a reminder of God’s ability to simultaneously command the two versions of the Decalogue’s Sabbath law, “Remember” (Ex. 20:8) and “Observe” (Dt. 5:12); a ruling on odd animal births elicits an observation about normal animal births; a law based on repetitive erections prompts information about the eye’s capacity to tear. 9 Mostly, as we have seen, nonhalakhic discourse is biblically oriented and thus substantially intertextual.

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